WASHINGTON—Ten senators—five Republicans and five Democrats—asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to conduct an urgent review of U.S. export controls to block China’s use of Hong Kong’s special legal status to steal sensitive technology.
“China is on a drive to displace its rivals and become the global leader in a number of strategic technologies,” the senators wrote in the Sept. 10 letter to the two secretaries.
“The Chinese government has demonstrated its willingness to use both licit and illicit means to acquire and advance its development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, tools of mass surveillance, and advanced robotics, among others,” the letter states.
“China is using these technologies not only to bolster its own industries, but also to advance its military capabilities and to infringe on the fundamental liberties of its citizens.
“Since its handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s open investment environment has been a source of growth for China, as well as a conduit for closer ties with the United States and other advanced economies.
“More recently, Hong Kong has become an integral part of China’s signature foreign policy initiative—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which includes a digital component known as the Digital Silk Road.
“We believe it is critical that the United States take appropriate measures to ensure China does not abuse Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to steal or otherwise acquire critical or sensitive U.S. equipment and technologies in support of its strategic objectives or to infringe on the rights of people in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.”
The Republicans signing the letter are Marco Rubio of Florida, Jim Risch and Mike Crapo of Idaho, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
The Democrats are Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
President Donald Trump initiated negotiations on a new trade deal with China in 2017, based in large part on concerns among U.S. business and political leaders that the Chinese were using their access to U.S. markets to steal critical commercial, digital, and military technology from the United States.
The negotiations continue amid newly imposed tariffs and counter-tariffs between the United States and China, and an atmosphere of charges and counter-charges as the two economic giants maneuver for advantage on the world stage.
Hong Kong’s colonial past provides the context for the complicated political situation of the present territory of nearly 8 million people, which is also a major factor in U.S.-China negotiations.
The island of Hong Kong became a British colony in 1842, after China lost the First Opium War to Britain. The current boundaries were retained by Britain under a 99-year lease that ended in 1997, when China assumed control while recognizing the near-autonomy of the local government.
Hong Kong became a prosperous international financial and trade center under British rule, but China has slowly, almost imperceptibly, tightened its grip since 1997.
The city has been wracked recently by huge citizen protests against a local government proposal to allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens under arrest to mainland China for prosecution, a proposal approved by officials of China’s communist central government in Beijing.
The protesters have succeeded at least temporarily in winning a withdrawal of the proposal, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the local official most closely identified with the extradition effort, has refused protesters’ demands for her resignation.
Hong Kong police have turned to increasingly violent measures to contain the protests, which prompted the 10 senators to request as part of the export controls review an assessment of whether U.S. law enforcement equipment, including tear gas and rubber bullets, are being sold to the Lam government and used against demonstrators.
“A related concern is whether current export control laws allow U.S. persons to inappropriately export police equipment to Hong Kong, which may be used to suppress legitimate civil dissent,” the senators said in their letter to Pompeo and Ross.
“In the last several weeks of protests, Hong Kong police have used tear gas extensively to disperse protesters. They have also used rubber bullets (including allegedly at close range) and beat protesters with batons, inconsistent with acceptable norms of treatment of civilians by law enforcement,” the letter stated.
They noted that the UK has recently suspended export licenses for “such equipment to Hong Kong, and we believe similar steps by the United States are warranted.”
The senators requested “detailed information about the current status of our export control regime focusing on these two concerns. We request an assessment—either in writing or in the form of a briefing—on whether our export controls are sufficient to safeguard U.S. interests, and an identification of any gaps.”
They also asked if there are currently “any relevant interagency discussions on revamping U.S. export controls towards Hong Kong as a means to address China’s continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Contact Mark Tapscott at firstname.lastname@example.org